After head-banging (see Why Head Banging Doesn’t Make Your Toddler Autistic), this is the other common behavior that seems to terrify parents of young children. Seeing a row of vehicles on the carpet makes parents absolutely sprint to search on Google in fear. Well, I want all of you to take a deep breath and then exhale. The truth is that there are a few other behaviors that are more indicative of autism than head banging.
Here is what I think that row of tiny toys often means:
Very young children have a natural interest in order and understanding spatial relationships. Kids like routine and familiarity way more than most adults. Some children who line up toys are just experimenting with how lines are formed or seeing how long a row of cars they can create. Some will even match colors or sizes.
And it is OK if Lightening McQueen has to be the first in the line at all times. Sometimes rigid routines have a beneficial developmental purpose. When your child tells you that you read Goodnight Moon wrong (you just paraphrased to end it early and get him to bed), he is really saying that he likes the familiarity and the orderliness of hearing those words said in that order. Boring to you, comforting to him. Experts in early literacy will tell you that his fondness for hearing the same story over and over is actually a developmental milestone in phonemic awareness, the cornerstone of language mastery.
Controlling their environment and creating patterns is another reason to line up those cars. Very young children do not create complex play schemes about races or adventures. Lining them up is developmentally correct play for the very youngest children, and it can easily expand with a little demonstration and engagement with you. Build a garage from Megablox or MagnaTiles, and see if your child will enjoy driving each one into the garage to “sleep at night”. (Don’t mention that in real life we all use our garages as storage units, not vehicle parking! ) Typically-developing children may even repeat your game later the same day, having learned a new way to play with their toys.
When does lining up toys become troublesome? When it is the ONLY way that your child interacts with those toys, or with any toys. And when you try to expand their play as above, they just about lose their lunch because it is all about rigid routines, not object exploration. If your child is on the spectrum, that line of cars is part of their environmental adaptation plan for security and stability; it’s not actually play at all. There isn’t a sense of playfulness about changing things around or using these objects for imaginative play.
A lack of developmentally-appropriate play skills is certainly a concern to a child development specialist, but it still doesn’t translate into autism. Here are a few of the behaviors in 1-2 year-olds that concern me much more:
- little or no eye contact when requesting something from you. They look at the object or the container, not at you.
- no response when her name is called, or not looking toward a specific person when the name of a family member is mentioned.
- using an adult’s hand as a “tool” to obtain objects rather than gesturing, pointing or making eye contact to engage an adult for assistance.
- a non-verbal toddler (over 18 months old) that doesn’t use gestures such as pointing or babbling to communicate needs or desires.
Always discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, and in the U.S., consider a free evaluation through your local Early Intervention program if you continue to see behaviors that keep you up at night. Therapy services are free as well, and they continue until your child is eligible for school-related services provided by your local district. They can help you!
- If you are looking for strategies to help your child handle daily life tasks such as cutting nails or tolerating hair cutting, take a look at Why Cutting Nails Is Such a Challenge for Autistic and Sensory Kids and What Helps Sensitive Kids Handle Haircuts?.
- Does your child W-sit? Read Three Ways To Reduce W-Sitting (And Why It Matters) to learn methods to address this right away without tears from your child or yourself!
- Concerned about your child’s difficulty transitioning and handling change? Read Use The Fast Food Rule to Help ASD Toddlers Handle Change.
I have transformed my own reactions to challenging toddler behavior with Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block methods. To teach your child self-control skills without punishment or shaming your child, take a look at Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! and Discipline and Toddlers: What Do You Say if You Don’t Want to Constantly Say “No”? . If your child is on the spectrum, these strategies will work for you as well. It may take longer for success, and you may have to look for small signs of comprehension and calmness, but they will work.
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